Interview: Garland Jeffreys
Originally from Brooklyn, Garland has been an active musician since the late 60s and released his first solo album – the eponymous ‘Garland Jeffreys’ – in 1973. He spans several genres including rock ‘n’ roll, blues and reggae, and has performed and recorded with some of music’s biggest names including Lou Reed, U2 and Bruce Springsteen.
Given the longevity of his career, it’s little surprise that Garland is a consummate professional – when asked to say a few words simply to check microphone levels, he has anecdotes ready to go. I learn that his daughter came to our shores as an exchange student and that Garland caught a Peter Gabriel show when he and his wife came over to visit her.
The fact that his first story involves his daughter is unsurprising – Garland is a devoted family man and his love for his nearest and dearest is obvious both when he’s speaking about them and in his music. The title track of his new album, 14 Steps to Harlem, is an autobiographical ode to his father, his wife Claire is represented by the album track Venus; and his daughter sings on the album’s closing track Luna Park Love Theme to rave reviews from her dad – ‘she kills it,’ he says.
The first five tracks on the 14-song album, along with the foot-tapping Waiting for the Man and the soulful cover of The Beatles’ Help which come later, are the stand-outs of 14 Steps to Harlem. The first track, When You Call My Name, has a great rock riff and a memorable chorus that’s easy to pick up and sing along to – a really strong opener, while track two – Schoolyard Blues – is a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll number that recalls Chuck Berry and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Expect hip-shaking groove, wailing harmonica and some sweet guitar licks.
The title track follows and slows the fast tempo set by the first two tracks. 14 Steps to Harlem is autobiographical piece about Garland’s family. ‘My father was an amazing man from a poor background,’ he explains. ‘He came from Harlem originally, then moved to Sheepshead Bay, so when we say ‘14 steps to Harlem,’ we’re talking about a guy who would take the train all the way to Harlem and all the way back every day to go to work, and that’s quite a distance. I saw that when I was growing up and we were lucky to have a man like that in our lives.’
Following this, track four really turns up the feel-good levels. ‘Venus is an R ‘n’ B tune,’ Garland says. ‘It’s about my wife – my Venus – who I adore. I’m very lucky to have her in my life.’
Over the course of his career, Garland has met, worked with and become friends with many household names including Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones and The Clash. The track Reggae on Broadway tells the true story of the time Joe Strummer came to see Garland’s show in New York City. ‘Joe Strummer and I had a great friendship,’ he says. ‘He was a real sweetheart of a guy. I hated that he passed on as he, and all of the guys from that band, really meant a lot to me. Joe came to The Bottom Line – a club that doesn’t exist anymore – and he was sitting at a table, and I was standing on one as the place was packed.’
For those not lucky enough to have yet seen him live – whether in a packed New York club or elsewhere – it seems that what we can expect is a show with a lot going on in it. ‘One of my strengths is the variety I have,’ Garland explains. ‘I don’t have just one sound; I do a lot of different kinds of music which are an invitation to different kinds of ideas. I pride myself in being consistent – every time I get on stage, I give it my all. I feel a big responsibility to my fans: they come in, they pay money to see a show and I reward them by giving them what they pay for.’
Garland’s new album 14 Steps to Harlem is released on 28 April. He arrives in the UK to undertake a series of dates, including 30 March at Cluny 2 in Newcastle. Visit www.garlandjeffreys.com for more information